Telling My Norwegian Story

The theme for this year’s BC Heritage week was “The Tie That Binds.” In celebration, I attended the City of Nanaimo’s 2019 Heritage Summit at the Nanaimo Museum which included a presentation by Christine Muetzner, manager of the Nanaimo Community Archives. In her talk, Muetzner spoke of how stories told over the years bind together the past, present, and future. She reminded the audience that each and every one of us has a story to tell, and we should think about sharing it. This thought inspired me to continue to explore my family’s history, and to write about my discoveries. While I didn’t find answers to all my questions, I did learn a lot. And one thing that became clear: family is another tie that binds.

Through researching and writing the story of my Norwegian great-grandparents, Ole Olsen and Konstanse Fyhn, I reached out to several relatives whom I had never met before. Not only were they happy to help me with my questions, but they were also curious about both the information I’d pulled together, and about my own little family. I was touched. Even though we shared a common ancestor (sometimes rather distant), these were basically strangers. Why would they care about me? But they did. And I cared about them too.

So after asking a lot of questions, and reading many books about the Bella Coola Valley, Sidney, and Norwegian immigrants, I’m happy to share a series of blog posts about my great-grandparents, Ole and Konstanse. It is the story of their individual emigrations from Norway; the life they built together in Hagensborg in the Bella Coola Valley, and their eventual move to Vancouver Island, which three generations later, I call my home. I never met Ole and Konstanse, but I feel a connection now, not only with them, but also with some of their other descendants whom I’ve met through my research.

As I finish writing parts of my Norwegian family’s story, I will link them to this post. The first part, Norway to Bella Coola: Ole Olsen, is a look at my great-grandfather’s emigration from Norway, his eventual settlement in the Bella Coola Valley with his two brothers Ingvald and Paul, and his marriage to my great-grandmother in 1914. The second part, Norway to Bella Coola: Konstanse Fyhn, is the story of my great-grandmother’s journey from Norway to Hagensborg in the spring of 1914, including thoughts about some possible reasons for her emigration as a young, single woman. The third part, The Olsens in Bella Coola, covers the years 1915 to 1935, after Ole and Konstanse’s marriage, when they started a family which eventually grew to nine children including my paternal grandmother. This part of the story also includes the harrowing tale of how the Olsens escaped from a destructive flood in October of 1934. The final part of the story, Bella Coola to Vancouver Island, chronicles the Olsens’ move away from the Bella Coola Valley to Sidney on Vancouver Island.

Learning about my heritage has been both enlightening (my dad likes butter on everything because that’s a Norwegian thing!) and frustrating (why can’t I figure out where my great-grandfather was in 1911?!). As I mentioned before, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but learning about my roots has been interesting. If you have ever thought about doing your own genealogical research, I encourage you to start. Ask questions, read books, listen, and learn. More and more records are accessible online, and family history groups are becoming more common. We all have stories to tell, and people want to hear them. No one’s story is perfect, but that shouldn’t stop us from sharing. Family and stories are both ties that bind, and by researching and telling my family’s story, I learned more about not only who my ancestors were, but also about myself.

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

George Bernard Shaw

Remembering Ingvald Olsen

I’m researching my family’s history, and recently I was able to connect with one of my dad’s first cousins who also lives on Vancouver Island. After seeing a newspaper article about the Canadian Letters & Images project at Vancouver Island University, she revealed that she had a letter I might be interested in. It was written to my great-grandfather, Ole Olsen, by his younger brother, Ingvald, who was serving overseas in the First World War. The letter had been tucked away in a family Bible, and because I work at VIU, the cousin was hoping I could facilitate the letter being added to the project.
Originally written in Norwegian, I was grateful that at some time over the last 100 years, the letter has also been translated into English. I read the letter for the first time on Remembrance Day, and the lines: “I’m sure you have heard the good news that the war is over. It is almost too good to believe for many of us who have witnessed hell on earth,” were incredibly moving for me.
Belonging to a generation that has thankfully only known times of peace, one that is frequently criticized for glossing over the importance and significance of Remembrance Day, I suddenly had a better sense of what it really meant. It’s like Ingvald was writing directly to me. Maybe it takes having a personal connection to a serviceman or servicewoman to really wake up to the importance of why we remember. This shouldn’t be the case. As Canadians, we should honour and respect the service and sacrifice of all of the men and women who have served this country, regardless of having a personal connection or not. But that’s easier said than done. We can willingly take the day off work or school, even observe a moment of silence, or attend a commemorative service, but it can be a little more difficult to really feel thankful.
I’m happy to share that the letter from Ingvald Olsen is now part of the WWI collection of the project, and that both the scanned original and the translated text are openly accessible. Initially, I had wondered if the project team may not be interested in digitizing a single letter, especially one written in Norwegian! I’m a big believer in the value of open access, so I’m not exactly sure what made me doubt. I think it’s because while Ingvald and Ole were definitely important individuals within my own family’s story, neither of them made headline news before, during, or after the war. They were just regular guys, who went on to live regular lives after the war was over.
Ole and Ingvald Casperson, together with a third brother, Paul, immigrated to “Amerika”1 from Norway in the early 1900s. Somewhere along the line in the immigration process they collectively changed their surname to Olsen. The brothers settled in Hagensborg, a Norwegian community in the Bella Coola Valley. Ole married my great-grandmother Konstanse Fyhn at the end of 1914, and started raising a family there.
Paul Olsen
While the youngest brother Paul volunteered for service in December 1916, it’s likely that Ingvald was conscripted. He was enlisted in November 1917, after the Military Service Act became law in Canada earlier that year. His personnel record includes attestation paperwork clearly stamped “Military Services Act,” and seems to have an exemption claim number – one that must have been unsuccessful.
Both Paul and Ingvald were sent overseas, fighting in France, and both were wounded several times. Paul suffered a gun shot wound to the head in October 1917, rejoining his unit in January 1918 after spending time recovering at field hospitals. In October of 1918, he was wounded again at the Battle of Cambrai, this time suffering a gun shot wound to his right arm. Paul did not return to battle after this second injury. He recuperated at several military hospitals, including Frodsham and Epsom, until he was discharged in February 1919.
Ingvald was wounded at the Arras Front in June 1918. He received multiple shrapnel wounds as the result of a hand grenade explosion during a raid. He spent several months in the Taplow and Bexhill hospitals, healing from wounds in both his legs and his back. His personnel record includes an x-ray of his left shoulder clearing showing three fragments embedded under his arm. I wonder if he ended up going home with those. Ingvald was discharged back to active duty on September 13, 1918. After the Armistice, he was discharged in February of 1919.
Of the 58 Bella Coola men who took part in the First World War, Paul and Ingvald were among those who came home again.2 Paul married Ruth Nordschow in November 1919, and Ingvald married Ida Engebretson in October 1924. Both couples went on to start families in Bella Coola. The bond between the three Olsen brothers seems to have remained strong. After my great-grandparents’ home was destroyed in the flood of 1934, all three Olsen families moved to Vancouver Island, settled together in Sidney.
Ingvald Olsen
Ingvald’s letter to his brother Ole was written just after the Armistice. He doesn’t speak to dramatic battles or heroic rescues, but of looking forward to going home. While the letter was certainly interesting to me, I wasn’t sure it would have value for anyone else outside my family.
Before making any assumptions, I should have reviewed the website of the Canadian Letters & Images Project a little more thoroughly. Having first been a history student at VIU, and now an employee, I was already aware of the project, but what I didn’t know much about was its dedication to its objectives.
“Too often the story told of Canada at war has been one of great battles and great individuals, an approach that unfortunately misses the ‘ordinary’ Canadian and the richness of their wartime experience. This project attempts to make visible again those who have made contributions and sacrifices for Canada, but who now have become largely invisible.”3
If I had read this statement from the project’s website earlier, I could have put any unsureness about the letter’s value to the project aside. It’s like this statement was written with my exact doubts at mind. This made me think that there must be a great number of people who share the same reservations that I experienced. If you’ve hesitated about contributing your family’s photos or letters to the Canadian Letters and Images Project – please reconsider.
“Every item that comes to us in the collections has merit and so all collections will appear in their entirety. … Our place is not to judge the historic merit of one person’s experiences over those of another, nor is it to judge the appropriateness of language or content from the perspective of the present.”4
Dr. Stephen Davies and his project team were happy to add my family’s letter to the collection, and even returned it in an archival document sleeve to help preserve it for future readers. I was able to easily deliver the letter to the university, but if you aren’t able to do so, “The Canadian Letters and Images Project will make arrangements at our expense to have any materials picked up and returned by courier to ensure the safety of those materials.”5
If you have any war letters or photos in a family album or keepsake box in the attic, please think about sharing them. We must remember, and contributing to a collaborative project like The Canadian Letters & Images Project can help us to do so. Through this type of project, we can share with one another the wartime experience of “regular” Canadians like Ingvald Olsen, and we can continue to honour their service and sacrifice for years to come. Lest we forget.

1. According to some of my family documents, “Amerika” is what Norwegians of Ole & Ingvald’s generation called both the United States and Canada.
2. Leslie Kopas, Bella Coola Country (Vancouver: Illahee Publishing, 2003), 63.
3. “About Us,” The Canadian Letters and Images Project, Vancouver Island University, accessed December 1, 2018,
4. “About Us.”
5. “About Us.”

Reading Bella Coola

My great-grandparents, Konstanse Fyhn & Ole Olsen on their wedding day in December 1914.

Although my interests typically are centred on Vancouver Island, lately I’ve also been exploring my family’s history. Before my great-grandparents moved to Vancouver Island in the mid-1930s, they lived in Bella Coola. After immigrating separately from Norway in the early 1900s, they both eventually settled at Hagensborg, a Norwegian community about 20 kilometres east of Bella Coola.

Hagensborg, originally known as Kristiania, was the 1894 stopping point for a group of Norwegian settlers coming up from the United States. The group was led by Rev. Christian Saugstad whom hoped to establish a utopian Norwegian colony there. While not part of the original group of approximately 80 colonists, my great-grandparents joined their fellow Norwegians once the community had been established. They married there in 1914, and had a family of nine children.

In order to gain insight on what their lives might have been like, and to know more about the Norwegian immigrant experience in British Columbia, I began searching around for some books. Luckily, between the titles I had already had at home, my dad’s collection, and university and public libraries, I’ve been able to put together an impressive reading list that should keep me busy for quite a while.

Here’s an overview of what I’ve found so far:

Olsen, Hank. Bella Coola Lady and That’s No Maybe. Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2003.


This is a self-published book written by my great-uncle about the family’s time in Bella Coola. Apparently it was received with mixed feelings within the family itself – a sure hint that it will be an interesting read. I can’t wait! This is probably going to be my best opportunity to get a sense of what my relatives’ experience was actually like. Even if the story has been romanticized or embellished some what, it’s likely my best source for describing the specific time period, people, and events I am most interested in.

Green, Marcy (Olsen). “An immigrant’s journey: The Olsen family”. Vancouver Sun. 29 April 2008. pg. B3. Online at:

This article based on family stories and legends gives the account of my great-grandparents’ experiences of immigrating to Canada from Norway. In 2008, to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the colony of British Columbia, the Vancouver Sun invited readers to send in written submissions which shared their families’ histories as a way to reflect on and celebrate the experience of ordinary British Columbians. My dad’s first cousin, another grandchild of the couple featured, submitted this article.

Wild, Paula. One River, Two Cultures: A History of the Bella Coola Valley. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004.

So far I’ve only just glanced at this book, but I was excited to see it includes information from an interview with one of my great-uncles (not the one that wrote the book) about the 1934 flood which was the impetus for the family to move away from Bella Coola.

My great-grandmother and seven of her nine children, including my grandmother whom was just five years old at the time, were stranded on the island they lived on after the two nearby bridges were washed away in the flood waters. Luckily, the family was rescued by members of the local First Nation in canoes, but their home was severely damaged. Shortly after, they left Bella Coola, moving to Sidney on Vancouver Island.

Fish, Gordon. Dreams of Freedom: Bella Coola, Cape Scott, Sointula. Sound Heritage Series 36. Victoria, BC: Provincial Archives of British Columbia, 1982.

This book gathers together oral interviews concerning three of the province’s ethnic communities: Bella Coola (Norwegian), Cape Scott (Danish), and Sointula (Finnish). A bulk of the Bella Coola sections are based on oral interviews CBC radio producer Imbert Orchard conducted with Milo Fougner and siblings Ted and Anne Levelton, whose fathers had arrived with the original group of Norwegian settlers. These are supplemented with additional interviews done for the BC Archives by the author Gordon Fish.

Made up of excerpts from these interviews, this book doesn’t read like a stuffy scholar writing about a far-flung community. The stories and memories are captured in the speakers’ own voices. It’s like the interviewees are sitting in the room with you, telling you their story in their way. This text serves as a valuable record of the people and families who were actually in Bella Coola at the time it was growing as a Norwegian community.

This photo is found in the Dreams of Freedom book and is captioned as “Bella Coola fisherman hauling in salmon gillnet”. A Clifford R. Kopas photo, my grandmother thinks that this is a picture of her eldest brother, Johnny.

Kopas, Cliff. Bella Coola. Vancouver, BC: Mitchell Press, 1970.

Faa, Eric. Norwegians in the Northwest: Settlement in British Columbia, 1858-1918. Victoria, BC: Runestad, 1995.

These books include lots of great information about the Norwegian settlement in Bella Coola. Unfortunately, the time period discussed for the most part pre-dates my great-grandparents’ arrivals in 1909 and 1914. Understandably, a lot of research focuses on the original group of Norwegian colonists, but as my relatives were not part of this first group, I think it’s going to be tougher to find information about Bella Coola when they were living there. However, I’m sure these books will still be interesting and useful for understanding how the community came to be, and what it was like to live there.

And one that I haven’t put my hands on yet, but will be looking into:

Solhjell, Peter. Spuds Among the Stumps: Norwegian Immigrant Settlement Photos, Bella Coola, 1896-1897. Hagensborg, BC: Solly’s Pub, 2008.

The pictures in this book also pre-date my great-grandparents’ arrival in Bella Coola by over 10 years, but I still think it will be an excellent resource, especially for getting a visual sense of what the community might have looked like when they arrived.

While I’ve certainly got a lot of reading ahead of me, it’s easy to be motivated when you feel like you’re discovering a part of your own history. I look forward to learning more about an area of BC that I’ve never visited (I predict I’ll be planning a trip after this research is through), and to becoming more familiar with the great-grandparents that I never got to meet.

The Wellingtons of Nanaimo – Part 2: South, East, West, North, & South Again

I wrote a previous blog post about the boom and bust of Wellington, the mining community north of Nanaimo’s original downtown which grew rapidly after Robert Dunsmuir discovered coal in the area in 1869. The exodus from Wellington was equally rapid, with a majority of the coal miners and their families moving on to the new mining towns of Extension and Ladysmith after the last Wellington Colliery mine closed in 1900. Even though the Wellington townsite essentially faded away once the mines closed, the Wellington name spread to other parts of the Nanaimo region. The mines and settlements which adopted the Wellington name were above-ground reflections of the network of coal seams that local miners followed deep below the surface.

South Wellington (#1)

By 1877, another mining operation had started outside of Dunsmuir’s Wellington. A shaft was sunk on a nearby farm and developed into the South Wellington Colliery. An undated map titled ‘Dunsmuir’s railway and Nanaimo coalfield’ shows the original South Wellington Mine as being located between Brannen and Diver Lakes.1

This was not a Dunsmuir mine, it was owned by investor Richard D. Chandler of San Francisco, but it did tap the Wellington seam. Because it was located on the Nanaimo side of Wellington, it was indeed “south” of Wellington, but I suspect that there may have been an attempt to capitalize on Wellington coal’s growing name and reputation.

But this proved to be somewhat prophetic: by 1879, the South Wellington Colliery belonged to Dunsmuir and it became the No. 2 Mine of the Wellington workings. 1882 is the last year that South Wellington Mine is mentioned in the annual report of the minister of mines. Over time, it eventually just got wrapped up in the memory of the Wellington Mines, but for a few years at least, this first South Wellington was a distinct place.

East Wellington

The East Wellington Colliery was located on land originally owned by the Westwood family. The Westwoods had arrived in Nanaimo in 1864, and developed a 650 acre property halfway between Nanaimo and Wellington in the Mountain District. The undated railway map previously mentioned shows this mine site as being at approximately the intersection of East Wellington Road and Maxey Road. Think north of Westwood Lake, but the lake wasn’t there then, it has only existed since about 1907, when the Nanaimo Electric Light, Power and Heating Company dammed the Millstone to create it.

William Westwood died in 1872, and the coal rights for the property were eventually sold by the family to Richard D. Chandler of San Francisco, who formed the East Wellington Coal Company. Yes, that’s the same Chandler who had been the owner of the first South Wellington operations.  He was a San Francisco entrepreneur, with an obvious interest in British Columbia coal mining. At first I was pretty skeptical – was it really the same investor backing the South Wellington and East Wellington Collieries, or has the story just got muddled over time? But the annual BC mining reports point to Chandler being responsible for both operations.

In the 1878 report, Chandler is not named, but the South Wellington Colliery report is signed by agent R. Wingate. In the 1879 report: “Two bores were put down by Mr. Wingate, the manager for Mr. R. Chandler, the former proprietor of the South Wellington Colliery. ” While this statement is referring to prospecting work for the East Wellington Colliery, it also makes reference to Chandler’s previous ownership of the South Wellington operation.

Robert Wingate was a successful mining engineer in the Pacific Northwest, working for Chandler at several of his coal operations. In 1879, Wingate was sent to prospect along the Carbon River, in Pierce County, Washington. Liking the potential of the site, Chandler purchased the Carbon River Coal Mining Company’s claim. A year later the company incorporated, and Wingate was named superintendent. An article about Carbonado, the coal mining town that grew up around the mine site, suggests that the reason Chandler sold off the original South Wellington Colliery was to finance these new Washington operations. The timing certainly fits. While the 1879 coal market had definitely been in a downturn, it would also make sense that Chandler was trying raise capital for investing in Carbon River.

Mining operations at the East Wellington Colliery commenced in 1882, and despite limited success, the site was continually developed in the hopes of finding good coal. A second shaft was sunk in 1887, within a kilometre of the first. In 1893, the East Wellington Mines were closed and flooded, and in 1894, in what must have felt like a repeat of the past, Chandler’s mines were taken over by Robert Dunsmuir and became part of the Wellington Colliery. Dunsmuir pumped out the mines initially, but work only recommenced for a short period following the change in ownership.

EastWellingtonFirehallToday part of the Regional District of Nanaimo’s Area C, the land around the former colliery is now primarily residential, with a definite rural feel. Although the coal days are long over, small reminders of Vancouver Island’s mining history can still be found in the street names in the area. The local improvement district, the Mountain Fire Protection District, has also chosen to maintain the East Wellington name for its fire department and new fire hall. As a side note, it was interesting to read the City of Nanaimo’s May 2018 report about the currently undeveloped park at 2191 East Wellington Road.2 The Nanaimo Model Airs, a local model aircraft flyers club, approached the city with an appeal to create a safe flying site for model aircraft. The East Wellington Park is now being considered as a possible location for the concept. What the coal miners of days past would think about drones and remote controlled planes flying overhead, I can’t imagine!

West Wellington

A few kilometres out of Wellington and adjoining the western border of Dunsmuir’s land, another San Francisco investor, Dennis Jordan, Esq. started up a mining operation, calling it West Wellington. Although some earlier work had been done, in 1895 operations resumed, including building a tramway to Jordan’s wharf in Nanoose Bay.  By 1896, the mine was owned by the West Wellington Coal Company Ltd. Getting the coal to market proved to be difficult for this company, and the operation was closed after just a few years. In 1907, the West Wellington Coal Company’s coal rights were acquired by the Gilfillan Colliery, but this also proved to be a short lived venture, closing the next year. The final attempt at this mine was in 1928, when the Little Ash Mine opened at the site. This was a small operation which closed down after just a handful of years.

North Wellington

In 1925, Island Collieries, which was owned by King & Foster Company Ltd., opened north of Wellington, with the intention of recovering pillars from the original Wellington Mines. This was a small operation, employing just 10 men. Henry Shepherd was the superintendent, resulting in many remembering this operation as Shepherd’s Mine. By 1927, the mine was owned by Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd., which was what Dunsmuir & Sons was renamed after it was sold by family in 1911. The site was renamed Wellington Extension No. 9.  Like many small operations of the time, the No. 9 closed periodically due to downturns in the coal market, and did not work again after 1932.

South Wellington (#2)

As part of the exchange for agreeing to build the E&N Railway, Dunsmuir’s newly formed Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway Company received a huge land grant, amounting to approximately 20% of Vancouver Island. This included the mineral rights for nearly 800,000  hectares. Not long after this deal went through, Dunsmuir began to explore coal prospects up and down the Island in the railway belt. In 1884, the Alexandria Colliery3 was opened in the Cranberry District, just south of the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company’s Southfield Mine. The mineral rights for the area had previously been owned by early settler and local land owner James Beck, but no substantial mining was done until after Dunsmuir acquired the rights.

The mine didn’t turn out to be as successful as hoped. It ran for just a few years before it was closed down for a decade. But by 1895, work had resumed again at the site, and as was typical of coal mines at the time, a small settlement grew up nearby. The townsite shared the mine’s name and was called Alexandria, a tribute to the Princess of Wales, Alexandra. But in 1899, when the community made an application to the post office, it was pointed out that the name had already been in use for some time in the province.4

The now unused South Wellington name was repurposed for this new Dunsmuir mining community. A likely reason for this was to keep the mine and its coal associated with the Wellington reputation that had already been developed. In reality, this was somewhat of a misdirection, as the mines in South Wellington accessed the Douglas coal seam rather than the Wellington.

On August 1, 1899, the post office opened and the name South Wellington officially moved even further south.  Locals describe the boundaries as: “an area bordered on the east and south by the Nanaimo River, [with Cedar on the river’s east bank and Cassidy on the south bank], to the north by what are now Nanaimo city lands [approximately the Duke Point Highway], and to the west by a large forested area and a ridge which separates it from Extension and Cinnabar.”5 This is the South Wellington I know and love, and if you ever hear anyone talk about South Wellington today, this is almost certainly the one they are referring to.South Wellington Road

Today South Wellington isn’t as densely populated as it would have been at the time of active mining. Instead of people living clustered around the mine sites, homes are now spread throughout the rural area. Minto Avenue is no longer a main drag with stores and boarding houses, but a quiet residential street.

From 1869, when Dunsmuir made his first discovery at Wellington, to 1951, when the No. 10 Mine in South Wellington closed, coal was king in the Nanaimo region. If underground seams proved profitable, the townsites flourished and grew; but when the coal played out, the towns faded away. The Wellington townsite itself was practically deserted after just a short period, but its influential name spread north, south, east, and west throughout the Nanaimo region, leaving behind clues about coal mining’s impact on Vancouver Island.


1. Viola Johnson-Cull, Chronicle of Ladysmith and District (Ladysmith: Ladysmith New Horizons Historical Society, 1980), 356.

2. Kirsty MacDonald, City of Nanaimo, Staff Report for Decision: Pilot Park Site for Nanaimo Model Airs Radio Control Flying Club, 2018, File No. A2-4-1/D1-4-37, Nanaimo, B.C. (accessed July 25, 2018).

3. The mine is remembered as the Alexander, the Alexandria, and the Alexandra. Even the Minister of Mines annual reports aren’t consistent from year to year.

4. Fort Alexandria was opened north of Williams Lake on the Fraser River in 1821, the last fort to be established by the North West Company before it merged later that year with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Alexandria was named after Sir Alexander Mackenzie in recognition of him being the first European visitor to the area in 1793. G.P.V. Akrigg and Helen B. Akrigg, 1001 British Columbia Place Names. (Vancouver: Discovery Press, 1973), 15.

5. South Wellington Historical Committee, South Wellington: Stories from the Past 1880s-1950s. (Victoria: First Choice Books, 2010), 1.

Morden Colliery

MCRTSignThe weekend was sunny and bright, and we decided to check out the Morden Colliery Regional Trail. This walking path runs through the Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park, and is maintained by the Regional District of Nanaimo. The park and trail are on the original site of the Morden Mine, a coal mining operation which was active periodically between 1912 and 1930.

In 1908, the Pacific Coast Coal Mines Company was formed to prospect for coal, purchasing mineral rights from early South Wellington settlers. About two kilometres north of the South Wellington townsite, the PCCM operated the twin slopes of the Fiddick and Richardson Mines together as the South Wellington Colliery from 1908 to 1917. Boat Harbour opened as the company’s shipping point in 1909, with a rail line running from there to South Wellington.

The Fiddick Slope of the South Wellington Colliery was the site of the terrible flooding disaster of 1915, when the abandoned Southfield Mine workings were accidentally broken into due to an error in scale on maps. The mine rapidly flooded, killing 19 miners – a tragedy that must have shook the small community to its very core.1

Ground at the company’s nearby Morden Mine site was broken in 1912. This new mine, with PCCM’s Slopes No. 3 and No. 4, didn’t operate fully until after the Vancouver Island Miners’ Strike ended in August 1914. The company used its existing railway to transport Morden coal to Boat Harbour for shipment. Unlike other mines in South Wellington, which had walk in, slope entrances, Morden was accessed by a deep, vertical shaft. This required a massive 22.5 metres tall head frame for hoisting coal up from deep below. The head frame and tipple were built of reinforced concrete, a first in the district. Surface mining structures of the day, including the head frame of Morden’s secondary air shaft, were typically built of wood. The main shaft’s concrete head frame is the one that’s still standing tall at the site today.

Despite the mine’s modern equipment and the company’s hopes and investments, Morden never proved to be a very successful mine.2 By 1921, only one man was employed as a watchman. In 1922, the mine was closed and flooded, and the PCCM went into voluntary liquidation. In 1930, Morden was briefly reopened by the Canadian Coal and Iron Company, but this also proved to be unsuccessful, closing later that year.

The Morden site was designated a provincial historic park in 1972, but for many years its story was not well told, with apparently no signs or plaques at the site. In 1995, the Regional District of Nanaimo started to develop the trail, and since then several interpretative signs have been added, and a significant miners’ monument was erected in 2017. This cairn not only memorializes the three men who died at Morden3 but the estimated 1,000 miners who died in Vancouver Island coal mines.

MordenHeadframeTippleThe impressive concrete head frame and tipple at Morden is a precious tangible remnant of Vancouver Island’s coal mining past. The structure is one of only two of its type in North America (the other one is at the O’Gara No. 12 Mine in Muddy, Illinois). For many years the site’s champions have been the members of the Friends of Morden Mine group, which has tirelessly advocated for funding and a more active preservation plan for the degrading heritage structure. Despite many attempts, the society has not been able to convince any level of government to fund what would be a costly restoration project. The society almost disbanded in 2015,4 but passionate volunteers can still be found at local heritage events. Their cause is a worthy one in my mind, and it will be a real shame when the head frame finally comes crumbling down.

banner.jpgAn interpretation of the iconic looming head frame was captured by local artist Patrick Belanger for Nanaimo’s Canada 150 celebration banners which were hung at major intersections around the city. The head frame and its adjacent tipple have also been replicated at the other end of the Modern Colliery Regional Trail at Cedar Road, with smaller wooden versions standing in tribute at the trail head.

Currently, the two parts of the trail are bisected by the Nanaimo River, but there has been talk for some time about a walking bridge to connect them. The Regional District of Nanaimo supports the connection in the parks section of its Area A Official Community Plan.5 I hope this eventually happens! It would be a great way to tie the neighbouring communities of Cedar and South Wellington together.

RailThe part of the trail at Morden follows the old PCCM rail grade, and is an easy walk through the natural forest. I was somewhat surprised to come across a small piece of rail next to the path. It’s easy to walk right by without noticing, so keep your eyes peeled. My sons loved the two wooden bridges, and easy access to a small pond which was home to tadpoles in various stages of metamorphosis. The trail ends at a great view of the Nanaimo River, and we instantly wished we had brought along some drinks to enjoy at the cleverly placed bench overlooking the view.

Heading back to the parking lot, we circled around the head frame and tipple on the Miners Loop Trail. I loved seeing the structure looming through the trees from different MordenArchpoints on the path.  In the trees not far away, the PCCM arch with a crumbling 1913 date is all that remains of what was a 60 foot smokestack of the boiler plant which powered the mining operation. I know a couple who had some of their wedding photos done there, and I have to say, I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t think of it for myself – especially because I grew up in South Wellington.

Overall, the whole family really enjoyed this trail, and I know that we’ll be back. We only saw two other groups the entire time we were there, so it seems like Morden is a bit of a little known secret. You’ll definitely enjoy the walk, but the site’s history is also pretty interesting – go explore it for yourself!


1. For more background information about the Pacific Coast Coal Mining Company, and about the February 1915 flooding accident in the Fiddick Slope of the South Wellington Colliery, including the subsequent investigation and charges see: Morgan, R. (2015). A tragedy of errors. Ladysmith & District Historical Society. Retrieved from:

2. Interviews conducted with Vancouver Island coal miners as part of the Coal Tyee History Project, include speculations about Morden’s untapped riches. Lewis Thatcher, a long-time South Wellington resident, thought, “There’s about 15 or 1,600 acres of the Morden coal still there.” Experienced coal miner Nelson Dean thought, “Way out at Cedar district there’s plenty of coal under there, where Morden shaft was in the wrong place, really. … It should have been over by the Wheatsheaf Hotel.” When his interviewer asked about whether Dean thought the Nanaimo area was mined out or not, Dean replied: “There’s a lot of coal left here. Underneath the Wheatsheaf Hotel? Right underneath there, there’s a lot of coal there.” Audio recordings and transcripts of the interviews are available in VIU Library’s VIUSpace at: (Thatcher) & (Dean).

In a section about Morden in a book by Vancouver Island mining historian Tom Paterson, one expert speculates that the coal field at Morden had been hugely underdeveloped and may in fact be worthwhile reworking. “There are approximately 1,800 acres of coal lands in the Morden property. Only 70 acres have been worked… From the 70 acres that has been developed approximately 7,000 tons of coal per acre has been extracted. If it could be proved that even 1,000 acres of the remaining 1,700 [sic] could produce 7,000 tons per acre, this would mean 7,000,000 tons of coal.” While it is also pointed out that the expense of following up on this speculation would make it highly improbable that Morden would ever be reopened, one can’t help but wonder… Paterson, T.W. & Basque, G. (1989). Ghost towns & mining camps of Vancouver Island. Surrey: Heritage House.

3. J.W. “Darry” Milburn (33) died on March 21, 1916; Bart Galitzkey (37) died on April 23, 1920; and Tony Sabella (26) died on November 6, 1920. See: Tilley, H. (2010) Morden Mine. In South Wellington: Stories from the past, 1880s-1950s. South Wellington Historical Committee. Victoria: First Choice Books, 13-19.

4. Cunningham, T. (2015, May 12). Society ends fight to save Morden Mine. Nanaimo News Bulletin. Retrieved from

Despite this article, I’ve discovered the society didn’t actually disband. For additional details about the Friends of Morden Mine, see:

5. See Policy 10.1.5 of Section 10: Enhancing and maintaining park land, green space, natural areas, recreational opportunities, and culture. Regional District of Nanaimo. (2011). A shared community vision: Electoral Area ‘A’ OCP. Retrieved from:

South Wellington Heritage Day 2018

On Sunday, May 6th, I attended South Wellington Heritage Day at the community hall on Morden Road (next to the Cranberry fire hall). South Wellington Day happens only every two years, so I always try to make it. Despite my family having moved to the area almost 30 years ago, they’re still considered “newcomers”. But I guess that’s what happens when you have families with roots going back to the community’s earliest days as a coal mining town still living in the area generations later.

4A-DalysI was pleased to see a small glimpse of myself captured in the school display. The display includes large format South Wellington Elementary all-school photos from the 1990s and 2000s, in some of which I found myself, my brother, and my friends. And at some point in the last two years an enterprising community member tracked down a South Wellington Elementary award plaque that happens to have my name on it for 1994/1995. My parents were so proud!

The hall was set up with displays detailing the community’s history. Many of the informational posters have been tirelessly created for the event by local historian Helen Tilley. Helen’s husband’s family has been in South Wellington for several generations, and Helen has a real passion for uncovering the history of the area. She’s helped descendants of coal miners connect with their ancestors’ pasts, and with each other. Her knowledge of the area is truly incredible.

There are coal mining artifacts at the event, and a huge number of photos. Some great door prizes were available, and there were tons of free snacks. There were also activities designed for younger attendees: a photo area with props was set up under a representation of the iconic PCCM arch, colouring sheets, and even a scavenger hunt activity.

Because I didn’t get the chance last time, I was happy to go on the community bus tour this year. At first I was somewhat skeptical that the tour would be “about an hour.” Can’t I walk all of South Wellington in an hour?! But once we got going, I was pleased to have the opportunity to see the entire community, including parts of the Camp, Bluff, Scotchtown, Morden, and Old Highway neighbourhoods.

From the fire hall, we turned right onto what was at one time part of the highway, but is now called South Wellington Road. We toured the south part of the Old Highway section of town, with the bus heading down Addison’s Hill. This apparently used to be a favourite sledding spot for the youngsters of the area. The bus continued down South Wellington Road, turning left at Nanaimo River Road and going underneath the highway through “the tunnel”. We travelled north, back up the Island Highway, bisecting what was originally the 160 acre Williams farm. It was pleasing to hear that part of the property is still farmed today by a Williams descendant.

The bus turned right at the lights, entering the Morden section of South Wellington. We took an immediate right on Main Road, following the road as it changed names into Thatcher, Emblem, and Frey Roads. What you may not know is that there’s an access to the beautiful Nanaimo River Regional Park down this way (the other end is accessed off of Fry Road down by the tunnel). It’s a pleasant, easy walk along the river, great for anyone looking to take a stroll in a natural forest setting. Perfect for kids and dogs, it’s one of my family’s favourite walks.

Map showing the route covered by the bus tour, as well as the coal mines of the area.

After successfully completing a turn around in the parking lot of the beautiful Yoga Weyr property, the bus driver doubled back the way we came until we reached Eglington Avenue. We turned right here, left on Akenhead, and then right onto Morden. This is a quiet residential area, originally developed when miners moved here to work at the Pacific Coast Coal Mine Ltd.’s Morden Mine.

Despite a narrow road and tight parking lot, the bus driver managed to get us right up to the impressive concrete structure that is the remains of the Morden Mine head frame and tipple. With a chuckle, one of my fellow bus riders fondly remembered an ascent to the top, motivated by some liquid courage. Somewhat entertaining for me was the fact that this adventure yarn was spun not by a daredevil teenaged boy, but by a middle-aged woman. The site has been designated a historic provincial park, and efforts to preserve this unique reminder of our coal mining history are undertaken by the Friends of Morden Mine group. I’m definitely looking forward to exploring this park’s trail further with my family.

Leaving Morden, we crossed the highway, passed the present and former locations of the Ruckledge Store, and at the fire hall intersection, turned right onto South Wellington Road. This brought us through the northern section of Old Highway. Next we turned left on Minetown Road, entering the area known as The Bluff. We saw the former location of the Green School, where many South Wellington children received practical education: manual training for the boys, and home economics for the girls.

Coming down Minetown Road, we reached probably what could be considered the original hub of South Wellington: the intersection of Scotchtown and Minetown Roads with Minto and Dick Avenues. We turned right onto Minto, which together with Dick Avenue formed the original main drag of the town and was known as Camp. Few reminders of South Wellington’s heyday remain. A large fire in 1914 destroyed many of the original buildings that had formed the backbone of the mining town. Some of the original miners’ homes still remain today, but none of the buildings that made up the original commercial district of stores, boarding houses, and hotels are still standing. The  United Church building, which has been converted into a private home, was rebuilt after the fire.

We executed another turn at Thelma Griffith Park, named after the community’s long time post mistress, whose family operated a small store with the post office across the street. We headed back to the intersection, this time turning right down the hill. Over the railroad tracks, past the former No. 5 Mine site, and into the valley, we headed into the area known as Scotchtown or Mushtown.

I was pleasantly surprised when the bus turned left onto Gomerich Road. While I was happy the street I grew up on was going to be part of the tour, my instant thought was: “How are we going to get out of here again?” The road basically dead ends in a driveway, and is narrow at even the widest sections. We passed by my parents’ property, which was originally the farm of Robert Miller, who was one of 19 miners killed in the 1915 flooding accident in the South Wellington Mine. Our barn, over 100 years old and somewhat of a landmark in the valley, still stands, but for how much Barnlonger, no one knows. The light the comes in through the cracks makes me nervous to go in there, never mind the building’s distinctive lean to one side. My dad has plans to pull it down and reuse the barn board for projects, but it’s still standing for the moment.

We ended up doing a guided, many point turn at the dead end of Gomerich Road, and we headed back to the hall. Even though I was very familiar with the area, I thoroughly enjoyed the bus tour. It’s a wonderful idea for connecting people with the landmarks of the community, and the pictures in the guidebook we received complemented the tour well. Doug Catley and Marjorie Stupich did a great job not only pointing out local landmarks like old barns and sites of important former buildings, but they also highlighted some of the current local businesses. This included Dudink’s U-Pick Berry Farm on Gomerich Road, and Kleijn Nurseries and Eagle Quest Fiddlers Green golf course on opposite sides of Thatcher Road. If you go to the event in future years, I’d highly recommend the tour.

treasuresofsw-e1526169547167.jpgBack at the hall, I of course checked out the books for sale. I picked up a copy of Treasures of South Wellington, written and illustrated by former resident Clare Singleton. Singleton has been working as an artist in B.C. for over 30 years, painting the “joys and trials of small town Canadian life, a life she wants to document before she fears it disappears.” South Wellington is lucky to be one of the communities Singleton captured with her art during her time on Vancouver Island. My particular favourite is her rendition of the Stupich family’s picturesque pink farm house on Scotchtown Road. On the bus tour, Doug Catley shared the idea that you can’t help but feel a sense of peace when you drive past the house, with its leaning fruit trees and sea of daffodils. I definitely agree.

SWBookAlso for sale was South Wellington: Stories From the Past, which was published by the South Wellington Historical Committee in 2010, compiling a series of interviews and submissions by past and present community members. This is a fantastic book, full of stories and personal anecdotes about early families in the area. If you have any interest in the community’s history, I would strongly encourage you to pick one up. They are usually available for sale at the Literacy Central Vancouver Island bookstore, and I’ve also seen them at Salamander Books in Ladysmith.

Overall, I had an enjoyable time attending what was probably my favourite South Wellington Day yet. The sense of community was strong, with people reminiscing about the past, talking about the present, and planning for the future. Neighbours clearly enjoyed sharing stories, laughing, and remembering together. It’s an important community event that I hope continues to take place for many years to come.

The Wellingtons of Nanaimo – Part 1: Old & New

A coworker who hasn’t lived on the Island very long recently asked me if I knew where South Wellington was.  My eyes lit up: “Do I? Yes!” Having grown up in the tiny community just south of Nanaimo city limits, I’m always eager to talk about my home town. Those familiar with Nanaimo will also know East Wellington, or at least East Wellington Road. And yes, for a time, there were also coal mining sites called West Wellington and North Wellington in the Nanaimo area. And don’t forget about just plain Wellington, the springboard for all these naming variations. So what’s with all these Wellingtons around Nanaimo anyway?

Wellington was the starting point of it all. Before 1869, the area around Diver, Brannen, and Long Lakes had just a few farms and cabins and was known as the Wellington District. The Comox Trail, a rough path leading from Nanaimo to Comox 120 kilometres away, ran through the area. Now, I haven’t found anything to confirm this, but I suspect that the Wellington District was named some time shortly after 1852. That would be the year that Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington died. Wellesley was an important 19th century British military and political figure. He defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and served twice as Prime Minister. As one of England’s most celebrated heroes, he was mourned greatly, and was honoured in many ways including a state funeral, a poem by Alfred Tennyson, and a bronze memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It wouldn’t be surprising if a new district in the fledgling Colony of Vancouver Island was also named in tribute.1

The timeline fits for the district getting a name after Wellesley’s death. Snuneymuxw Chief Che-which-i-kan2, known afterwards as “Coal Tyee”, had brought a canoe full of black rock to Victoria in 1850 for the HBC’s perusal. This led to Joseph McKay being sent to Nanaimo to secure the area on behalf of the company, and coal mining around the harbour got going in earnest shortly after. It would make sense that in the ensuing years, as Nanaimo developed as a townsite, people would spread out into the surrounding areas, resulting in those districts being surveyed and assigned their own names. Maps from 1859 show that the nearby Cranberry, Cedar, and Mountain Districts had also been named by this time.

In 1869, independent miner Robert Dunsmuir discovered coal near Diver Lake, just outside of the northern boundary of the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company’s property. (The HBC had sold its Nanaimo interests to the VCMLC in 1862). Further investigations in the area led Dunsmuir to uncover a thick new coal deposit which he called the Wellington seam. This coal discovery led to the development of Dunsmuir’s successful Wellington Colliery, with a townsite – Wellington – growing up nearby.

The original “old” Wellington townsite was north of Diver Lake and was made up of company houses for the coal miners and their families. Robert Dunsmuir died in 1889, but the Wellington Colliery remained in operation under the direction of his son James. With the success of the mines, more people came to the area, and starting in about 1890, James Dunsmuir allowed lots to be sold off to miners in a “new” Wellington townsite not far away. This would be the area on the south shore of Long Lake, with numbered streets (now 101 – 107), and distinctively British avenues.3

Wellington Sign
BC Stop of Interest Sign – Wellington

With the huge success of Wellington coal, the town grew fast, eventually reaching a population of over 5,000, which was larger than Nanaimo’s population at the time. But by the late 1890s, the mines were no longer the high-producing operations they had once been. The Wellington Mines closed one by one, especially once a new coal discovery at Extension drew the company’s attention southward. A fire in 1899 destroyed many of the town’s key buildings, and others were moved to the new mining communities of Extension and Ladysmith. The population dropped significantly as miners and their families moved away to pursue jobs in other mines, but Wellington continued on as a rural community until it was eventually amalgamated with Nanaimo. On January 1, 1975, Nanaimo’s boundaries expanded and Wellington, along with Harewood, Chase River, Northfield, Departure Bay, and Protection Island, became part of the City of Nanaimo.4

Few remnants of Wellington can still be see today. Some of the homes located in Extension and Ladysmith originally came from Wellington; they were transported by rail to their new locations when the miners moved away from the fading Wellington Colliery to work at the new Extension mines. Other larger buildings were also moved to Ladysmith from Wellington: the Anglican Church on Buller Street; the Temperance Hotel at the corner of First Avenue and High Street; and the Jones/Miner’s Hotel on Gatacre Street are a few that are still standing today and appear on the Town of Ladysmith’s Community Heritage Register.

In Wellington itself, the most tangible reminder is the Wellington cemetery, quietly tucked away at the corner of Ledgerwood and Cardena Roads. This is the resting place of some of the original Wellington residents, most likely many of whom were miners or their family members. While over 100 burials are recorded, only approximately 25 markers still remain. Many are difficult to read, overgrown, or damaged. The Italian, Belgian, and Finnish names which appear on the remaining headstones reflect the diverse ethnic makeup of the mining families of Wellington. Formally recognized on the Canadian Register of Historic Places, the cemetery is quiet and peaceful. For more information about the Wellington Cemetery, make sure to check out the Nanaimo Historical Society’s virtual tour at:

Wellington Cemetery
The Wellington Cemetery

While the current Island ConnectEd building (formerly Mount Benson Elementary School) only dates back to 1950, the property has a long history as the home of the school in Wellington. On May 20, 1875, on land donated by Dunsmuir for the purpose, the Wellington Public School officially opened. This first building burnt down in 1904, but another school was rebuilt on the same site. The second school was also destroyed by fire in 1944, and yet another school was built nearby. This third school was given the new name of Mount Benson Elementary, and was open until 2008. This school was closed after the 2007/2008 school year by the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District as part of a business plan that would see the land sold to provide capital funding for other district projects.

There was some interest raised in the Wellington area about using the closed school building for community-focused activities. Community members also brought forward a concern that the “top field” (the land originally donated by Dunsmuir) could not be sold by the school district because it was held in trust for the people of Wellington.6 The site was not sold and the former Mount Benson Elementary School building is now home to Island ConnectEd, Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ facility to support distance learning. With over 140 years of public education on its grounds, the site off of Jingle Pot Road has the distinction of being the oldest known operating public school on its original site in British Columbia.7

The Wellington Inn has also had a significant presence in the area, albeit from several different locations. The original saloon, operated by Charles “Donnybrook” Chantrell, was almost as old as the mines and was near the original townsite on the north shore of Diver Lake. Seeing an opportunity with the development of the mines, Chantrell built a larger hotel in 1875, and despite being called The Wellington Inn, most people called it Chantrell’s. The establishment burned down and was rebuilt at least once while it was near the lake. The hotel was eventually rebuilt in the new Wellington townsite, where the present Wellington Pub and Liquor store still operates on Victoria Avenue.

Even though Wellington townsite faded away once the mines closed, the Wellington name continued to spread to other parts of the Nanaimo region. To learn more about North, South, East, and West Wellington, please read my post, The Wellingtons of Nanaimo Part 2: South, East, West, North, & South Again.


1. In 1852, Vancouver Island was still its own colony. It was created in 1849, and was a separate entity until 1866, when it was joined with the mainland Colony of British Columbia.

2. Also seen as Ki-et-sa-kun.

3. Apsley Avenue was likely named either for Henry Bathurst, 2nd Earl of Bathurst, who was the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain from 1771-1778, and was known as Lord Apsley, or for his home, Apsley House, which was eventually sold to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington; Wellesley Avenue was another tribute to Arthur Wellesley; Victoria Avenue named for Queen Victoria who was the reigning monarch at the time of Wellington’s development; and Corunna Avenue was likely named for the Battle of Corunna, which was considered a memorable British tactical victory against the French in the Napoleonic Wars. The naming pattern (numbered streets and British avenues) is reversed in Ladysmith, which was also named by James Dunsmuir, where the avenues are numbered and the streets carry names of British Boer War officers. For more info on Ladysmith’s street names see:

4. Jan Peterson, A Place in Time: Nanaimo Chronicles (Nanaimo: Nanaimo Museum, 2008), 278.

5. Justine Hunter, “Sad last day as Nanaimo school shuts its doors,” Globe and Mail, June 28, 2008,

6. Andréa Coutu, Twitter direct message to author, July 12, 2021; “Mt. Benson School History,” YouTube video, 7:30, “wellingtonbcaca,” March 3, 2011,

7. For more information about the history of the school site see: Note: There is also a high school in Nanaimo called Wellington Secondary. This is at a separate site at 3135 Mexicana Road. The high school opened in 1967, initially as a junior high, but now has grades 8 through 12.

Destination Cortez Island

Cameron, June. Destination Cortez Island: A sailor’s life along the BC coast. Surrey: Heritage House, 1999. ISBN: 1895811686


A memoir by June Cameron about her family’s experience on Cortez Island, plus anecdotes about other early pioneers from the area. Cameron’s maternal grandparents, Alfred and Florence Hayes, arrived on Cortez in 1917, with the plan to establish an orchard and nursery to support their family of nine children. Despite Alf’s horticultural training, this proved to be an insufficient means to make a living, and had to be supplemented in a variety of ways. The Hayes family were not alone in their struggles. Other pioneers had also settled in the area with farming ambitions, and the lack of a reliable means of transporting perishables up and down the coast proved to be an insurmountable challenge for some.

Despite the difficulty of eking out an existence, Cameron’s grandparents remained on Cortez.  Beginning in the 1930s, Cameron spent every summer of her childhood there, the early ones living on her parents’ 36-foot wooden boat moored nearby. Her parents eventually pre-empted their own piece of land on the island, and the family built a one room house on the property. They continued to summer on Cortez, away from their school year home in Vancouver.

June Cameron was not only a competitive sailor, but also a prolific nautical writer and artist. She had many articles published in the magazines Pacific Yachting and Western Mariner, and specialized in boat portraits and coastal landscape painting. Her love and knowledge of boating and the coast in general are obvious in her writing, but as a landlubber, I found the jargon and technical details about boats, engines, and fishing somewhat daunting.

I did however appreciate a very early explanation of the Cortez versus Cortes spelling. It was something I had been wondering about prior to even starting the book. There are thousands of islands on the B.C. coast, I wasn’t entirely sure if Cortez and Cortes were the same island or not. I was glad to have my question answered right out of the gate. As Cameron explains in the introduction: the island was originally named by the Spanish explorers Galiano and Valdes in honour of Hernando Cortes, conqueror of Mexico. “While that spelling [Cortes] has survived on most Canadian Hydrographic Service Charts, many of the pioneers anglicized the name and referred to the tranquil island west of Desolation Sound as Cortez.” True to her pioneer roots, Cameron never strays from the ‘ez’ spelling. Apparently, the pioneers even had their own way of saying their island’s name, pronouncing it “Cor-teez”, a speech pattern that Cameron also adopted.1

June Cameron passed away in July 2016, her last words: “I’m almost ready to go back to Cortez.”2 Before she went on that final journey, she left behind an enjoyable read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the island her family loved, or about the lifestyle of those who settled the B.C. coast.

Cameron compares her book to a stew, made up from sources both old and new, with bits and pieces contributed from her own experiences, and those of her friends, family, and neighbours. I felt this was an apt description. Cameron wrote the book in tribute to the pioneers of the area, mixing their stories with hers to produce a book that is not only her own memoir and the story of her family’s experience on Cortez, but also the story of the larger coastal community.


1. Jordan, L. (2016, November 22). June Cameron. Cortes Island Museum and Archives [blog]. Retrieved from

2. (2016, July 24). June Cameron. Campbell River Mirror [obituary]. Retrieved from

Dr. Klein Grant

Recently I’ve been transcribing recordings of presentations given at Nanaimo Historical Society meetings during the 1960s and 70s.  The one I’m working on now is an address by Patricia M. Johnson from 1968.  The topic of Johnson’s presentation was Dr. Klein Grant, a pioneer doctor in Nanaimo during the city’s early days.

Johnson originally became interested in Grant after encountering his headstone in the pioneer cemetery at 10 Wallace Street at the corner of Wallace and Comox Road in downtown Nanaimo.  This cemetery, Nanaimo’s original, is the third oldest in British Columbia after Fort Langley and Victoria. It was used up until 1895, and although it’s hard to think of it that way now, it was most likely considered outside the downtown core when it was established.

One hundred years after its first known burial in 1853, the cemetery had fallen into quite a state of disrepair, with overgrown grass and blackberry brambles, and damaged monuments and markers. The newly formed Nanaimo Branch of the British Columbia Historical Association1 was deeply concerned about the state of the cemetery.  In 1953, the group, including Johnson, made a record of all the stones still standing and a sketch of their original positions.2

In 1958, as their B.C. Centennial Project, the Hub City Kiwanis Club cleared the site, grass was planted, and with the help of the Historical Society members, the remaining monuments were placed in a curved stone wall. By 1960, the project was completed and the site was officially converted into a memorial park by the municipality.  Dr. Grant’s monument was one of the markers placed in the wall.

Patricia Johnson was curious about this little known Nanaimo pioneer. At the time of her visits to the cemetery, she could still read the inscription (today it’s very difficult to make out):

Klein Grant tombstone – Nanaimo, B.C.

Here rest the body 
Who died May 27, 1873
Aged 68 Years

A learned man
A kind physician
A courteous gentleman

Johnson was intrigued and she wanted to know more.  Who was this man with the marble headstone with such a beautiful epitaph?

So she conducted research and put together an interesting report on Dr. Grant.  In brief: she found that before coming to Nanaimo he had been a prominent physician in England, with a home and office in Bedford Square, and an important position at the Aldersgate School of Medicine.

During her search Johnson came across the rumour that Grant had been the editor of The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal. With the assistance of the journal’s staff, she found this to be untrue, but she was very curious about the fact that Grant had apparently lived on the same street as the man who was the editor.3 Thomas Wakley, the founder of The Lancet, did indeed live at #35 of Bedford Square. Johnson speculated that the two men, being from the same profession, must have known each other, and wondered if Grant had in fact been a contributor to The Lancet.

In 1968 it was probably nearly impossible for Johnson to determine if Grant was a contributor to The Lancet without a serious amount of effort, possibly even a trip to the UK.  But 50 years later, I can easily confirm that Dr. Klein Grant did publish at least two articles in The Lancet, just as she had suspected:

“Subscription for the widow and children of the late Dr. Ryan” was published on March 20, 1841 (Volume 35, Issue 916, page 903), and “The North London Medical and Surgical Institution at Islington” was published on May 21, 1851 (Volume 73, Issue 1864, page 522).4

In addition to these articles, Grant also published some longer material: in 1839, he produced  a revised, corrected, and enlarged seventh edition of Lexicon medium ; or Medical dictionary. This was described on the title page as “containing an explanation of the terms in anatomy, human and comparative, botany, chemistry, materia medica, midwifery, pharmacy, physiology, practice of physic, surgery, and the various branches of natural philosophy connected with medicine,” and would most likely be the “medical treatise, for family use, which had an immense sale” that Johnson referred to in her presentation.  On the title page of this substantial eight volume set, Dr. Grant is listed as “late senior physician to the Royal General Dispensary and lecturer on the practice of physic at the Aldersgate School of Medicine, extraordinary member, and former president of the Hunterian Society of Edinburgh.” Additionally, in 1842, he edited Memoir of the late James Hope, M.D., physician to St. George’s Hospital with historian Anne Fulton Hope (the subject’s wife).

Patricia Johnson also apparently found evidence that Dr. Grant had at one time had some poetry published (she doesn’t give any details).  The library worker in me knows that this will be nearly impossible to find any more information about, primarily because of the typically poor indexing of poetry anthologies.  Even without proof of his more literary pursuits, it is clear that Dr. Grant was a highly learned man, respected, and well published while he was in England.

He travelled to Vancouver Island in 1862, acting as the ship’s doctor on the ill fated, Rosedale, which ended up running aground on Race Rocks, resulting in the doctor losing everything but the clothes on his back.5 He then came to Nanaimo for a job as the colliery doctor for the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company, replacing the community’s first physician, Dr. Benson. But Grant’s life in Nanaimo ended up troubled with drink; he died in 1873, and in the words of Canon John Booth Good, who served at the Anglican Church in Nanaimo until 1866, Grant was “unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.”6

This is actually a line of Sir Walter Scott’s, from his 1805 narrative poem, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel: Canto VI”:

High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentered all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.7

In her presentation Patricia Johnson reads another excerpt from Canon Good’s journal which suggests Good knew more about the story behind Dr. Grant’s immigration to Canada: “He lost his standing, and the confidence of the public, compelling him to give up wife, home, and country, and flee away to where he was not known.” Was Canon Good simply using the “unwept, unhonoured, and unsung” line from Scott’s poem because he felt the words fit Dr.Grant’s sad end as an alcoholic in Nanaimo? Or perhaps he was making a larger comment on Grant’s exit from England after the loss of his “fair renown” – the loss of his reputation.

A very curious thing about Dr. Klein Grant is that he has another tombstone.  In the graveyard of St. John the Baptist Church in Hope Bagot, Shropshire, England, his name is listed on a family stone along with Anne Morgan, who was the daughter of a former rector of that parish. The epitaph reads:

Klein Grant & Anne Morgan tombstone – Hope Bagot, UK

In Loving Memory of
who died at NANAIMO

27th May 1873, Aged 68 years
Also of ANNE MORGAN, his wife
Eldest daughter of the late

Rector of this parish
Died 14th May 1891, Aged 75 years
“In Christ shall all be made alive”
1 Cor. 15. 22

Very interesting! So Dr. Grant did leave a wife behind in England when he set out for Canada.  Her parents, the Reverend David Jones and Joan Elizabeth Jones, are also buried in the same graveyard, and according to the inscription on their grave marker, Rev. Jones had been the rector of the parish for 28 years: from 1840 until his death in 1868.  It is not surprising that with such a long family connection to the church at Hope Bagot that the graveyard there was Anne’s final resting place, but why didn’t she go to Canada with her husband?

When he left for Canada in 1862, Grant was about 56 years old; Anne was about 45, certainly old enough to make a contemplated decision. Was his drinking the issue that tore them apart? Or did his addiction only begin once he was alone in North America?  Was the separation in fact related to a professional mishap?  Did they have children?  Did Anne place the tombstone in her home parish’s graveyard after she received word that her estranged husband had died in Canada, with her own name to be added later? Just like Patricia Johnson in 1968, I feel like there are so many unanswered questions!

But one thing is clear, even if Canon Good felt that Dr. Klein Grant was “unwept, unhonoured, and unsung”, this wasn’t actually true.  Someone cared enough to purchase the lovely marble headstone in Nanaimo, as well as a second headstone in Hope Bagot…not bad for a guy who was apparently professionally ostracized, was estranged from his wife, and who drank himself to death.


1. The “Nanaimo Branch of the British Columbia Historical Association” is now known as the Nanaimo Historical Society, with the British Columbia Historical Association now called the British Columbia Historical Federation.

2. When introducing Patricia Johnson for her November 19, 1968 address, William Barraclough refers to a booklet that was printed with an inventory of the tombstones at the time of the restoration work.

3. Johnson’s research led her to information provided from a Miss Eleanor Grant, an assistant editor at The Lancet. Miss Grant researched Dr. Klein Grant (no relation) in British medical directories and found him listed in 1854 as living at #49 Upper Gower Street, Bedford Square, which she said was just two houses away from the first editor of The Lancet.  It’s well documented that Thomas Wakley, the founder of The Lancet lived at #35 Bedford Square.  A look at the Internet Archive’s full text version of the British Medical Directory for England, Scotland and Wales, 1853 also lists Grant at #49.  The two men therefore lived reasonably close, certainly in the same neighbourhood, but they were not “just two houses away.”

4. Using the advanced search feature on The Lancet‘s website, and searching for Klein Grant in the Author field returns the two articles.

5. For additional details on the Rosedale wreck see: (1862, December 13). Marine disaster. The Daily British Colonist, p.3. Retrieved from 

6. Excerpt read from Canon John Booth Good’s journal by Patricia Johnson as part of her presentation to the Nanaimo Historical Society on November 19, 1968. Audio recording and transcript available in VIU Library’s VIUSpace at:

7. Scott, Walter. (1805). The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Poet’s Corner. Retrieved on 26 March 2018 from

An Island Girl Introduction

Hi, I’m Dalys Barney!  That’s me with Nanaimo’s first mayor, Mark Bate.Dalys&Mark After a full 36 years of living on Vancouver Island I still can’t seem to get enough.  I love learning new things about this awesome place – especially anything to do with history.  Through my work in the technical services department at the Library at Vancouver Island University, I often come across interesting resources about the Island, and I’ve always got my eyes peeled for more.  Last year I joined the Nanaimo Historical Society, where I’ve enjoyed listening to presentations from a variety of great speakers.

I thought it might be kind of fun to start a blog highlighting my personal exploration and discovery of Vancouver Island’s history.  At this point I’m thinking it will be a mixture of research I’m discovering, comments on local heritage events I’ve attended (including the Historical Society), book reviews, and other ramblings.  While my main focus will be the history of the Island, especially central Vancouver Island, I also foresee posts about new Island discoveries: parks, trails, venues, activities, etc.

I’m totally new to this whole blogging thing, but I’m pretty excited, so here goes!